AUSTIN, Texas — Lewis Hamilton wanted to make Formula One’s return to the U.S. something special, for him and for racing.
The Briton did just that Sunday, using a thrilling pass of Sebastian Vettel at the end of a long straightaway to take the lead, then holding off the German for the final 14 laps to win the U.S. Grand Prix, the first Formula One race on American soil since 2007.
Hamilton won that race five years ago and made the move of the day to capture his fourth victory of the 2012 season.
“Wicked!” roared Hamilton, who pumped his fists, waved to the crowd and danced on the nose of his car after the win. “This is one of the best, if not the best Grand Prix, we’ve had all year.”
Hamilton had driven his McLaren car to wins in Canada, Hungary and Italy earlier this season and relished his chance to return to the U.S. Grand Prix, run on the new $400 million Circuit of the Americas.
Hamilton talked of his love affair with the U.S. all week and raced with the stars and stripes of the American flag painted on top of his helmet. After the win, he wore a black cowboy hat on the podium.
Red Bull’s Vettel, who had a string of four consecutive victories end two weeks ago, started on the pole on Sunday. The two-time defending world champion was a heavy favorite to win and perhaps even clinch his third consecutive world title.
Vettel finished second and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso was third Sunday. Vettel now leads Alonso by 13 points heading into the final race of the season next week in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
“Bit of a shame to lose first place but I think we did everything we could,” Vettel said. “We’ve been very quick in Brazil the last few years so plenty to look forward to.”
Vettel had dominated practice and qualifying on a new track none of the teams had driven until this week. But Hamilton consistently posted the second-fastest times and served notice he could be dangerous.
Vettel survived the chaos of the start as the drivers surged for the top of the 133-foot elevation at the signature first turn, then whipped around and down into the second before making a slalom run through a series of curves.
Vettel kept clear of the congestion and looked to be off and running to a victory. Hamilton stayed close and looked for his chance on every pass through the straightaway before finding the room he needed.
Vettel led the first 41 laps until Hamilton zipped by as the cars approached the tight corner on turn No. 12. Vettel tried to move to the inside to hold off Hamilton but couldn’t.
“I knew that lap was going to be the lap that I was going to try, so I turned the engine up and went for it,” Hamilton said.
“He had one chance and took it. There wasn’t much between us,” Vettel said. “I tried to defend … but I knew that he would have so much more speed that he would get by either side so it didn’t really matter what I was doing.”
Alonso had to work hard to stay in the hunt for the drivers’ championship.
The Spaniard was set to start in eighth position but got a boost to seventh when Ferrari broke the gearbox seal of Alonso’s teammate, Felipe Massa, incurring a five-spot penalty that allowed Alonso to move up.
“The reason for this was for strategy considerations, with the objective of maximizing Alonso’s start potential given that he’s still in with a chance to win the drivers’ championship,” Ferrari said in a statement. “It was a decision agreed by both drivers.”
Alonso used the better position to immediately advance three spots in the first lap. He ran into trouble with a bad pit stop when his crew struggled to replace one of his rear wheels, but made up enough ground to keep the pressure on Vettel next week.
“Today it was not possible to keep pace,” Alonso said. “They were too far ahead.”
Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen, who won in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, finished sixth. Michael Schumacher of Mercedes, a former seven-time world champion who is set to retire again after Brazil, could not capitalize on starting from the No. 5 spot and slipped to 16th.
The 25-year-old Vettel is already the youngest repeat champion in Formula One history. He could join Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers to win three in a row. Alonso, 31, won consecutive titles in 2005 and 2006.
“We try to look at Brazil with a possibility to fight for a world championship,” Alonso said. “It’s something that we fight all through the year and try to fight for position. Only Sebastian is in a better position than us but we should be proud.”